Open main menu

Historical and biographical sketches/10 Captain Joseph Richardson



CAPTAIN JOSEPH RICHARDSON.




On the main road leading from Phoenixville, in Chester county to Norristown, in Montgomery county Pennsylvania, about two miles from the Valley Forge and within a few yards of a hamlet called the Green Tree, may be seen an unpretending two-story stone dwelling of some note. It would not be likely to attract the attention of the traveler of to-day; but a hundred years ago, wayfarers who used the road stopped a moment to examine it, and perhaps envied the wealth of those who could afford to live in a mansion so spacious and imposing. Within sight the beautiful and romantic, though treacherous Perkiomen, flows into the Schuylkill, and the rich tract of land in the angle of the two streams, upon a part of which this house stands, lore in earliest times, the perhaps Indian name of Olethgo. Ten or fifteen years before the Revolutionary war it belonged to Joseph Richardson, a man whose remarkable career, clouded somewhat by the obscurity which has gathered around it during the lapse of time, still lingers in the traditions told by the grandames of the neighborhood to wondering children, and in such contemporaneous documents as chance or antiquarian tastes have preserved. The great-grandson of Samuel Richardson, one of the earliest colonists most influential in shaping the destiny of the province, and of John Bevan, a noted preacher of the Society of Friends, who had abandoned wealth and position in Wales, to accompany in the cause of truth his “esteemed friend William Penn;”[1] the son of a prominent Quaker, and closely related to the Hudsons, Emlens, Morrises, Rawles, and others of the leading families of that sect in Philadelphia, there were few who could claim a more honorable or more virtuous ancestry. He inherited a remarkable physique from his father, of whom it is told that he could write his name upon the wall with a piece of chalk while a fifty-six pound weight hung upon his little finger, and bright blue eyes, looking forth from beneath brown locks, added adornment to a comely form. Six feet two inches in height and compactly made, he possessed immense muscular strength, and was capable of great endurance.[2] Tradition says that once an athlete, who dwelt in a distant part of the country to which his reputation for prowess and vigor had found its way, made a long journey in order to challenge him to a wrestle. Richardson examined the presumptuous stranger for a few moments and then inquired along which crack in the board floor he would be best pleased to lie. The selection had scarcely been made ere the discomfited wrestler was stretched like a child in the place he had chosen. Being the oldest son, he inherited the paternal estate; and having married Mary Massey, the daughter of one of the Quaker families of the Chester valley, he commenced life under the most favorable auspices, and for many years all things appeared to be well with him. His tastes were those of a country gentleman of his time. Sopus, Scipio, Fearnought and other imported horses of pure blood were to be found in his stables.[3] An Island in the Schuylkill containing 24 acres of land, a short distance above the present Perkiomen Junction, and marked upon the maps of that epoch as “Richardson's Island,” afforded fine opportunities for catching the fish which then abounded in the river. The post-rider, in his weekly trip from Philadelphia to Ephrata and Swatara, brought the Pennsylvania Gazette, the newspaper of the day, to his home. His mien and carriage were those of a man conscious of more than ordinary power, though his manner had received tone and polish from occasional contact with life in the city, and from association with the intellectual people of the province. Physical and mental characteristics such as he possessed always impress the masses, and as might be anticipated he was popular. In 1755, after the defeat of Gen. Braddock at Fort DuQuesne, the French were so emboldened by their success as to threaten the capture of Philadelphia and the Indians extended their incursions to the neighborhood of Reading, where they killed and scalped many of the inhabitants. Rumors were rife that both Bethlehem and Reading had been burned to the ground, and the wild fear, now long forgotten, which only the torch and tomahawk could inspire, everywhere prevailed. In this time of trial and excitement women looked to Joseph Richardson as a protector. The young men of the vicinity gathered about him, and forming them into a company, he led them toward the frontier and the enemy. In 1757 he was elected commissioner of Philadelphia county. In 1765, together with Judge William Moore, of Moore Hall, Dr. William Smith, Provost of the University, Benjamin Franklin, the Rev. Thomas Barton, Israel Jacobs, his brother-in-law, who was afterwards a member of the second United States Congress, and others, he engaged in an extensive speculation in Nova Scotia.[4] They bought two hundred thousand acres of land there, and intending to found a colony, proceeded to lay out the town of Monckton on the Petitcoodiac river and Frankfort on the St. Johns river. In the language of the agreement each adventurer should receive one of four town lots, sixty by two hundred and twenty-five feet in dimensions, one hundred and fifty acres in the outlying tract for himself and wife, and fifty acres additional for every Protestant person or child he took with him. The other three lots remained the property of the company; but, until that time in the future when they were to be sold at great profit, they could be used by the adventurers as gardens. Houses were to be erected, sixteen feet square and one-and-a-half-stories high. Two vessels filled with emigrants who accepted these terms and loaded with hoes, spades and implements of husbandry sailed from Philadelphia. When they arrived in Nova Scotia, however, the ungrateful settlers finding that lands were plentiful and occupants few, scattered whither they chose throughout the country and the scheme ended in a failure. It seems strange that while the forests were still standing along the Schuylkill it should ever have been attempted. The will of Franklin contains one devise to his son William, who had been a loyalist. It is for his interest in these lands; and he explains the gift by saying with caustic severity, that it was the only part of his estate remaining within the sovereignty of the King of Great Britain.[5]

In 1771, Richardson made arrangements for a visit to England. For several years previously, the people of Pennsylvania and New Jersey had been much annoyed by the appearance of counterfeit bills, imitating so closely the currency of those provinces, as to make their detection extremely difficult. They were issued in considerable numbers, and with such dexterity, that for a long time the authorities, though earnest and on the alert, were completely baffled. Finally, in 1773, a clue to the source whence they came, it was believed, had been discovered, and it pointed toward two persons, one well known to the community, and the other comparatively obscure. Samuel Ford was with some difficulty captured, and having been convicted, ended his life upon the scaffold. On Wednesday the 18th of August, the sheriff of Philadelphia county, provided with a warrant from one of the Judges of the Supreme Court, and attended by an armed posse of resolute men, hastened with great secrecy to arrest Joseph Richardson. Tradition tells that the officers of the law surrounded his house in the night, and awoke him from his slumbers. He recognized from his chamber window some of them as acquaintances, and inviting them courteously inside, entertained them in such manner as the unexpectedness of their visit permitted. Though surprised at the enormity of the charge, he expressed a perfect willingness to accompany them, and only requested delay long enough to enable him to arrange his clothing. While, however, he was displaying the blandness and suavity of a host toward welcome guests, his Quaker wife, true to her husband, and we dare not say false to her faith, quietly escaped from the house and saddled the fleetest of his fine horses. Suddenly he jumped from a rear window, and, with needless bravado, appearing a moment afterward mounted before the eyes of his astonished companions, he shouted, “Now, come along, gentlemen,” and rode away into the darkness. Startled by this unexpected coup, they discharged their weapons at random, and pursuit, though undertaken with vigor, was utterly vain. On the other hand, the officers made a report, the gist of which was that they beset his house in the daytime for many hours, and used every effort to take him; but that, with loaded pistols and other weapons, he bade them defiance, and kept them at bay until night, when he succeeding in eluding them, and escaped to his horse.[6] The differing accounts bear equal testimony to his adroitness and daring, and doubtless his outwitted and disappointed antagonists stood somewhat in awe of him. Governor Penn immediately issued a proclamation, offering a reward of £300 for his capture. Governor Franklin, of New Jersey, who met with some censure from the Legislature, offered £300 more, and the newspapers urged their readers, and all of his majesty's good subjects to make every exertion to secure “this very dangerous man.” The plantation, the island, the servant, the horses and all of his property, were seized and sold, and henceforth he was an outcast and a wanderer. Soon afterward the war commenced, and in the folk lore which has come down to us from that era, Richardson appears as the hero of many a marvelous tory incident, and is described as a cherished companion of those noted Bucks county desperadoes, the Doanes, in their deeds of lawlessness and adventure. Once a man named Conway came upon him lurking in a dense wood, where stands the present village of Port Providence, which then belonged to David Thomas, the husband of Richardson's sister, and the grandfather of the author of Lippincott's biographical dictionary. He compelled Conway to bring him some food, and by threats of death if his whereabouts should be divulged, enforced secrecy. A farm house of the neighborhood has a portion of the garret separated from the rest by a plastered partition, forming a false chamber without windows; and in this dark receptacle, called still by the country folk “the Richardson hole,” it is said that he and the Doanes used to hide away their booty. Once he went to Bromback's tavern in Chester county, and laying a loaded pistol within reach, ate a meal while the cowed bystanders looked on without daring to interfere. At another time, being closely pursued by a body of horsemen, among whom, we are told, were several of the Vanderslices, he rode across the country to the Delaware, and nothing daunted, plunged into the river. His horse fatigued by a long course, struggled ineffectually against the waves, and so leaving the animal to its fate, he threw himself from its back, and swimming across to the Jersey shore again escaped. “But the fox must sleep some times, and the wild deer must rest,” and February 24th, 1777, a vigilant individual wrote to inform the Committee of Safety that the “famous or infamous Ritchardson” had been seen in Philadelphia. Three days later, General Thompson, Major Butler, and some other officers, captured him between the city of York and the Susquehanna river, and conveyed him to Lancaster, and there had him securely confined in the jail. His good fortune however, did not yet desert him, and, strange to relate, either because of his innocence or shrewdness there seems to have been an entire lack of evidence against him. The mittimus in the first instance charged him with being a tory; but this accusation was abandoned, and that of forging and counterfeiting substituted. Having demanded and received from William Atlee, Chairman of the Committee of Lancaster county, a certificate to the effect that there was no proof of his being in league with the enemy, he wrote concerning the other charge, a bold letter to Colonel Timothy Matlack, Secretary of the Council of Safety, saying that the reports against him had been circulated by ill-disposed persons, and that before the war he had gone without avail to Philadelphia county to be tried.[7] He intimated that his confinement would be of disadvantage to the Continental cause, since, if continued, his son, who held a commission in the service, would be compelled to resign; and he appealed to Matlack as an old friend to procure an early disposition of the case. Atlee, whom the Council authorized to act in the matter, refused to discharge him upon bail, holding that although no evidence of his guilt had been produced, the proclamation of the Governors made upon affidavits raised a very strong presumption of it. In June, Daniel Clymer renewed the application to the Council for him, and he was then liberated after a confinement of about four months. Three years later, on the 6th of March, 1780, he was again arrested upon a warrant from Joseph Reed, President of the Supreme Executive Council, issued by their direction, and thrown into jail in Philadelphia. The old accusation of counterfeiting was renewed, and in addition it was declared that he was disaffected to the cause of America, and his going at large was injurious to the interests of the good people of the State.[8] It must be admitted that his incarceration upon charges vague and seemingly impossible to prove, has much the appearance of persecution. He immediately presented a petition for a hearing. The Council submitted him to a searching examination, remanded him to jail, and at the expiration of two months ordered his release, “on condition of his leaving the State of Pennsylvania, and going to some other part of America not in the possession of the enemy, not to return to this State without leave.” If he obeyed these requirements, it was only for a short time, for he had returned to his old neighborhood in 1782, and there, before 1798, he probably died.[9] The latter part of his life seems to be involved in impenetrable obscurity, and doubtless his relatives and friends were loath to renew the recollections of a career which, though it opened with much brilliancy, was afterward tarnished by suspicion, if not stained with crime.

Was he guilty? A hundred years have rolled away, and who can answer now a question which was not determined then? While the intelligent wife of an English baronet can recognize the coarse features of an Australian butcher as those of her own educated and refined son; while thousands of people believe, and scores of them declare upon oath, that an unfortunate convict is the heir of one of the oldest Saxon families of the realm, who can solve the mysteries of the past? His long flight lends color to the accusations, and his subsequent readiness to meet his accusers has the appearance of innocence. If blameless, he was the unhappy victim of one of those webs of circumstance which are sometimes woven about even the purest of men, checking their usefulness and darkening their fame, and if guilty, strength of intellect and craft enabled him to conceal the traces so effectually that the keenest of his enemies were powerless to discover them. In reaching a decision, it should not be forgotten that whatever were the virtues of our revolutionary grandsires, lenity toward those suspected of loyalty was not one of them, and the repeated arrests and imprisonments of Richardson show what would have been his fate, could the proof have been obtained. We commend the study of his life and character to the coming American novelist, who will fix upon the crests of our own Alleghanies some of the halo, which since the beginning of the century has radiated from the highlands of Scotland.

  1. Collection of Memorials, page 79.
  2. Penna. Packet, Aug. 23d, 1773.
  3. Penna. Gazette.
  4. Jacob's MSS.
  5. Franklin selected Anthony Wayne as the surveyor of these lands for the company. A printed copy of the agreement with the adventurers, accompanied by a rough draft of the site, the original French deeds for the tract and many of Richardson's MSS. are in my possession.
  6. Penna. Packet, Aug. 23d, 1773.
  7. Penna. Archives, vol. v, pages 239, 248 and 254.
  8. Colonial Records, vol. xi, pp. 216, 226; vol. xii, 270, 272, 273, 389.
  9. Jacobs' MSS.